Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.
The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles.
Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.
Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence.
Seven citizens of Kazakhstan who strayed into Turkmenistan accidentally have been jailed for seven years, reports western Kazakhstan’s Lada newspaper, quoting an unnamed relative of one of the detainees.
The group includes four law-enforcement officers who were working in the border area, and three hunters who were in their company for reasons yet to be established. The four officers had been sent to a border district with Turkmenistan on the hunt for illegal migrants and wanted criminals, Mangystau Region police chief Kayrat Otebay said following their October 19 arrest.
Otebay said the law-enforcement officers were headed to Kazakhstan’s Boget border unit but lost their way in the desert. Officials have yet to establish why they had teamed up with the three hunters, but there has been speculation the officers were giving them a lift.
Confirming the arrest a week after it happened, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry said the seven had been arrested for “illegally crossing the state border and penetrating three kilometers into the territory of Turkmenistan.” It also said they were carrying firearms.
The group received prison terms of seven years after a trial in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi, Lada quoted the sister of one of the detained Kazakhs as saying. The newspaper, which is based in Kazakhstan’s Caspian city of Aktau, did not identify the source by name.
Central Asia’s mountainous borderlands have seen their third bizarre mass murder this summer, this time in Kyrgyzstan.
Police say a border guard conscript in Kyrgyzstan’s eastern Issyk-Kul Province killed four contract border guards and a civilian before fleeing in a stolen car on August 20. Early the following morning security forces killed the suspect, identified as 19-year-old Balbai Kulbarak uulu, in a mountain gorge near the Kazakh frontier, Reuters reported.
The state border service, part of the State Committee on National Security (the GKNB, which is often still called the KGB), said Kulbarak uulu was killed after firing at authorities.
Kulbarak uulu had been hostile to his colleagues the day before the killings, said the Military Prosecutor’s office. The five dead at the Echkili-Tash outpost included the post commander and the wife of one serviceman. Three guards managed to escape.
Mass murders are uncommon in Central Asia, at least prior to this summer.
A clash on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan frontier that left one dead on each side has sparked a spat between Tashkent and Bishkek about who was responsible. In response, Tashkent has reportedly closed the border to citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek says the July 17 shootout occurred when Uzbek border guards opened fire as a dispute with local villagers got out of hand. But Tashkent, after reportedly firing the head of the Border Service, has upped the ante by describing it as an “armed bandit attack” by Kyrgyz guards, regional media report.
The shootout happened in an undemarcated (hence potentially disputed) sector of the border between eastern Uzbekistan’s Namangan Region and southern Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad Province.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, villagers from the settlement of Bulak-Bashi and staff from the nearby Bozymchak gold mine started repairing a road in the undemarcated sector, refusing to heed Kyrgyz guards’ entreaties to stop.
When border guards from Uzbekistan demanded a halt to the repairs, villagers “reacted aggressively,” Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service said, in comments carried by Kyrgyzstan’s state news agency. “As a result the border detachment of Uzbekistan used weapons; Kyrgyz border guards opened return fire,” it continued, leaving one Kyrgyz border guard dead and two Kyrgyz citizens wounded.
The plot thickens on Kazakhstan’s eastern frontiers. For a second time in a month, allegations of hazing among border guards are prompting a rapid response in Astana.
This week, authorities arrested the commander of a border post near China on suspicion of committing violence against other soldiers in his unit, local media report.
The arrest of the commander plus two contract soldiers comes two days after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
The military now says the soldiers deserted in order to report hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones that is common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
“They wanted to report to the command post that there had allegedly been an incident of hazing,” Ardak Zamanbekov, an official from the regional command, said in remarks broadcast by KTK TV. The military has opened a criminal case to investigate the allegations.
The incident comes in the wake of a massacre at another border unit on the frontier with China, this one in southeastern Kazakhstan, where 15 people were slaughtered on the night of 27-28 May. The sole survivor, 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh, confessed to the massacre last week, saying that hazing had made him “flip.”
A young man, believed to be the sole survivor of a massacre late last month at a border post near Kazakhstan's frontier with China, has confessed to murdering 15 people because of disagreements within the military unit, according to video released by the prosecutor’s office.
The film showed 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh describing the catalyst for the murder as an argument with a fellow soldier who refused to get out of bed, which made Chelakh “boil over and flip.”
This was part of wider disagreements at the border post where “I was humiliated […] insulted too often,” he said.
While the motive may seem weak, it lends weight to an initial theory that the murderer was the victim of hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
Chelakh was shown confessing on video at the scene of the crime. Evoking scenes straight out of a horror movie, he confessed to hunting the victims down around the unit and shooting them, setting fire to the building, then killing a gamekeeper in his lodge to eliminate a witness. Chelakh spoke coherently, with no sign of reciting a prepared speech.
Further video showed him confessing to his mother and, in a clip reportedly filmed by Chelakh himself after the crime, hiding in what appears to be a cave in the forest.
Twelve border guards have been found dead at a frontier post in southeastern Kazakhstan, local media report.
A top Border Service official confirmed on May 31 that an investigation was under way after the “charred remains of 13 people” had been discovered in a burnt-out border post the previous day.
The bodies of 12 border guards and one national park ranger have so far been found at the Argkankergen post on the Chinese frontier and the search continues for others, Turganbek Stambekov, first deputy director of the Border Service (which comes under the jurisdiction of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service, the KNB), said. He did not specify if the fire was the cause of death.
Fuelling media suspicions of foul play, Stambekov said the border post is usually staffed by 15 guards in the summer, but gave no indication of the whereabouts of the missing three.
Speculating about what might be behind this unusual incident, local reports suggested an attack on the border detachment (though the possible motive is unclear) or hazing -- it is common in post-Soviet military units for senior soldiers to ritually harass and bully their juniors.
Initial reports that the frontier guards’ weapons were missing were not true, a Border Service source told the Kazinform state news agency. The source said the weapons had been found and sent for tests to see if they had been fired.
Here’s some good news for the Ferghana Valley: Uzbekistan has reopened its frontier with Kyrgyzstan, 18 months after unilaterally screwing it shut. Tashkent closed the border during the bloody ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, dramatically wounding trade in southern Kyrgyzstan.
One study last winter found commerce in the region’s largest market, Kara-Suu, had fallen by 75 percent, encouraging higher food prices and smuggling.
The Dostuk (“Friendship”) border post between Osh and Andijan reopened early on October 26, Bishkek’s AKIpress news agency reported. There is no word yet whether other posts along the 1100-kilometer frontier will open.
But why now, four days before Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, when Bishkek is bracing for more political or ethnic violence? Wasn’t Tashkent’s original logic to keep Kyrgyzstan’s messy politics contained?
A few possibilities come to mind:
For one thing, the reopening, decided on in Tashkent, looks like a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, the leading candidate in the October 30 poll. Opening the border would revive commerce, which could add a notch to the premier’s belt. Moreover, though the rights of minority ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan may not be the top priority on Uzbekistan’s foreign-policy list, Tashkent has shown concern about the issue, and Atambayev stands apart from the two other leading candidates as less of a nationalist hothead. (Besides, if, heaven forbid, the election should trigger a new round of interethnic strife, Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks in the south would have somewhere to run.)
Something must be going right in the rickety relationship between Dushanbe and Moscow.
In late March, Moscow increased fuel export duties on petroleum products destined for Tajikistan, the poorest country to emerge from the former Soviet Union. This blog speculated on possible causes: Could it have been pressure to allow Russian troops to reassume control over the Tajiks’ wide-open border with Afghanistan, which Moscow says is a conduit for millions of dollars of heroin blighting Russian youth? Or something thornier, such as whether Moscow should pay to station its troops on Tajik soil?
Certainly, Russian primo Vladimir Putin isn’t the kind of leader who responds to irritations with charity. In May, prices for gasoline in Tajikistan jumped 44 percent thanks to his tariffs. But in a sudden about-face, the all-powerful Putin has signed a decree actually lowering – slightly, immediately, even retroactively – those fuel duties. Light crude prices will decrease by a modest 3.7 percent as of July 1, CA-News reported on July 5.
Putin is no doubt concerned by what the US Embassy, in a WikiLeaked cable, described last year as a “poorly trained, poorly paid, underequipped and often under-fed” Tajik border force that allows 40 tons of opiates to enter Russia each year.
Russian news agency Interfax is reporting that Russia is pressing Tajikistan to allow its troops to resume border defense duties in an effort to stem the flow of drugs coming from Afghanistan.
The border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is long and hard to guard. In some sections, all that separates the two countries in narrow high-walled gullies is a shallow, unfenced and fast-moving river. It is often possible to drive for hours on the barely paved road running alongside the border before coming across any signs of a military presence.
Not surprising, therefore, that Moscow should be applying relentless pressure to be enabled to supplement Tajikistan's tightly stretched frontier forces. But, as one unnamed Tajik source tells Interfax: "Very complex negotiations are under way; Russia wants to return to this geopolitically important southern border of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], but Tajikistan is still cool to the idea."
Reuters cites anonymous security sources and analysts saying Russia may seek to send up to 3,000 border guards to Tajikistan.
Russian border troops left Tajikistan in 2005 in a development that seemed to mark yet another stage of Moscow's gradual strategic withdrawal from the region. But with the drug problem in Russia showing no sign of abating, the emphasis has now moved from broad issues of strategy to more pragmatic areas.